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What Are Aggravated Factors and Mitigating Circumstances in Florida Criminal Cases?

When a person pleads or is found guilty of a criminal offense in Florida, the court’s next job is to determine the punishment. This phase is also known as “sentencing.” Each criminal act in Florida carries its own penalty range. But whether you are given a light or heavy sentence depends on aggravated factors and mitigating circumstances. 

Aggravating factors may increase a person’s sentence, while mitigating factors have the potential to compel a judge to lean toward a downward departure on sentencing. 

As our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers can explain, judges typically have some discretion when it comes to sentencing. This is an entirely separate phase of a criminal case. In a felony case, the court will plug various factors into a “criminal code scoresheet,” which will provide a pretty good idea of what sort of penalty the defendant will face. However, both prosecutors and defense lawyers will have the opportunity during this phase to present evidence of aggravating factors or mitigating circumstances - with the goal of convincing the court to impose either a heavier or lighter sentence.

F.S. 921.0016(1)(b) holds that a trial court judge can impose a state prison sentence that varies upward or downward by up to and including 25 percent of the state prison sentence guidelines without issuing a written statement detailing the reasons. However, if a judge is going to impose a sentence that deviates more than 25 percent from those guidelines, that sentence must be accompanied by a written statement detailing the reason why.

But while judges do have this discretion, the law discourages deviation from the sentencing guidelines unless there are factors that reasonably justify it. And any sentence that doesn’t fall within the sentencing guidelines is going to be subject to appellate review.

Mitigating Circumstances in Florida Criminal Cases

Judges are typically required to sentence defendants to a minimum amount of time based on statutory guidelines. However, if your criminal defense lawyer can successfully argue mitigating factors, the judge has the discretion to deviate with a “downward departure” from that minimum. Downward departures are prohibited unless there are circumstances that reasonably justify it. 

Most circuit court judges will expect defendants to file a motion to argue for a downward departure if they intend to present evidence of mitigating circumstances - as outlined in F.S. 921.0026. These circumstances can apply to any felony offense (except a capital felony). 

Among these factors:

  • The defendant was an accomplice to an offense with a relatively minor role in it.
  • The defendant’s ability to appreciate the criminal nature of the conduct was substantially impaired. 
  • The defendant needs special treatment for a mental disorder (not related to addiction or substance abuse or physical disability) and they are agreeable to receiving that treatment. 
  • The need for restitution to the victim outweighs the need for the defendant’s time in prison.
  • The “victim” initiated, willfully participated in, provoked, or was an aggressor in the incident.
  • The defendant was acting under the domination of another person or under some extreme duress. 
  • The victim was substantially compensated before the defendant was identified. 
  • The crime was an isolated incident, carried out in an unsophisticated manner, and the defendant has expressed remorse. 
  • The defendant was too young at the time of the crime to fully appreciate the consequences.
  • The defendant was acting in good faith to obtain or provide medical assistance to someone experiencing a drug-related overdose. 
  • The offense was not a crime of violence, leading to 60 or fewer scoresheet total sentence points AND the defendant is eligible for/amenable to a post-adjudicatory treatment-based drug court program.

It should be noted that these are the mitigating factors specified solely for felony cases where one is requesting a downward departure from the minimum sentence. Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers can also present evidence of other mitigating circumstances that might compel leniency in sentencing - and that goes for both misdemeanor and felony cases. 

Additional mitigating circumstances may include:

  • No prior criminal record. 
  • Past trauma or other circumstances, such as abuse or neglect, that played a role in the defendant’s state of mind or situation. 
  • Circumstances at the time of an offense (stress, emotional problems, abuse, etc.) that may have contributed to the crime. This won’t necessarily excuse the defendant’s actions, but can help to explain it.
  • Genuine remorse. 
  • Coercion of the defendant by another person.
  • The defendant’s standing and reputation in the community. 
  • The defendant’s age and level of intelligence and maturity at the time of the crime.
  • Scope of harm done by the defendant. (This is helpful in cases where the offense was not violent and the damage largely correctible.)
Aggravating Factors in a Florida Criminal Case

Aggravating factors are those facts that would compel the court to impose a harsher penalty on the defendant than they might otherwise. Having an experienced defense lawyer who can help successfully challenge the validity of any aggravating factors being asserted by prosecutors can go a long way toward ensuring you don’t “get the book thrown” at you.

Among the aggravating factors set forth in F.S. 921.0016(3):

  • The crime was one of violence, and it was carried out in a way that was especially cruel, atrocious, or heinous. 
  • The crimes in question occurred out of separate episodes, with the primary offense being a level 4 offense or higher and with the defendant having committed 5 or more offenses within a 180-day period. 
  • The primary crime was a level 3 offense, and the defendant committed 8 or more offenses within a 180-day stretch. 
  • The defendant committed the crime within 6 months after being discharged from prison or some other release program.
  • The defendant was in a position of leadership in an organized criminal group. 
  • The defendant was a public official who committed their crime “under color of office,” or outside the bounds of the authority to which their position entitled them.
  • The defendant knowingly committed a violent crime against a law enforcement officer. 
  • The crime created a sizable risk of death or great bodily injury to many people or to one or more small children. 
  • The victim was somebody who was in a particularly vulnerable position because of their age or a disability. 
  • The offense committed was a hate crime. 
  • The victim suffered a great deal of physical and/or emotional trauma or suffered permanent physical injury or was treated in a way that was particularly cruel.
  • The attack occurred in front of the victim’s family.
  • The offense resulted in some significant financial hardship for the victim(s).
  • The crime was committed in order to evade arrest or prosecution or to flee from official custody.
  • The defendant convinced a minor to participate in the crime. 
  • The defendant won’t cooperate with any recommended supervision or rehabilitation. 
  • The defendant’s juvenile record is extensive. 
  • The sexual crime resulted in the victim contracting an STD.

If you’re facing criminal charges in Fort Lauderdale, it’s important to understand the ways in which aggravated and mitigating circumstances may impact the outcome of your case. Working with a defense lawyer with extensive experience and a successful track record can help ensure your rights and best interests are protected throughout the process. 

If you have been arrested in South Florida, call The Ansara Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale today for your free initial consultation at (954) 761-4011.

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